Childhood adventures in junk spill over into adulthood

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When I was young I spent a lot of time rootling around in my great-grandfather's barn. It was musty, creaky, filled with odds and ends of old equipment and tools.

In other words, a major health hazard. And these days my parents would probably get fined for reckless endangerment.

In those primitive times my parents just warned me if I hurt myself I'd have to go to the doctor for a tetanus shot. They knew I would do anything to avoid the doctor.

Also, just knowing the various pieces of farm equipment were potentially life-threatening (yes, I hate shots that much) made my weekly forays into the family junkyard that much more fun. Some kids skateboarded, I rootled.

We had old mowers, seeders, planters and at least one old Dodge pickup built sometime in the first three decades of the 20th century. Plus boxes and boxes of parts I could build "stuff" with. It saved my folks a bundle on buying wood blocks.

My hodge-podge creations included a sailing ice sled and several morphodite bikes.

The downside is I still like junk. Or at least it's a downside according to my wife, who usually knows what she's talking about. I like having my own junk, and I like driving around and looking at other people's junk.

During the Christmas holiday I spent some of my free time driving the back roads near my in-laws' house just to see old cars, rusty equipment and amorphous piles of scrap.

The sight of an abandoned vehicle is equally melancholy and uplifting. It's an ode to impermanence, a lesson in mortality, while at the same time offering the hope of rebirth. It's almost performance art, and since it's not funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, it's not coming out of my taxes.

I have a good friend who is also a "junkie," and afternoons at his house are usually spent scrounging around his personal junk piles, cleverly kept out his wife's field of vision by a tree-row. Not only does it provide hours of non-tax funded entertainment, it's a source of income.

My friend's scrapyard is so prodigious, people from all over call him to ask if he has various parts for old cars and equipment. Often he does, and will barter or give them away. People also regularly contribute to the pile, not wanting to see their old junk go to waste.

I'm just a little jealous, of course, because I would love to have my own junk pile, but I may never be able to. Between my wife and the government, junk piles may become a thing of the past.

I am referring to a recent fine levied against a local junk pile that, for many, has become a landmark. Owned by Alton Filan, of Walla Walla County, Washington, the considerable heap is arranged neatly in a straight line cutting across his family's property.

For anyone driving Highway 12 between Walla Walla and Waitsburg, it's hard to miss. According to Filan, he and his father started the pile in the 1980s, and he's been adding to the cache ever since.

If Walla Walla County officials get their way, however, the pile could disappear. The county levied a $75 fine against Filan for failing to comply with county ordinances regarding "excessive vegetation and debris."

Speaking of debris, this year the National Endowment for the Arts handed out $1 million in prose writing fellowships for stuff that, lets be honest, the average consumer isn't tearing down the walls of their local bookstore to read.

And what about the "Birth of Baby X," a performance art piece where - no kidding - Marni Kotak gave birth in public at the Microscope Gallery of Brooklyn in October?

Here's a tip for anyone who missed it: Attend natural childbirth classes. You can see all the childbirth you want, for one low fee. Plus, none of the women in the films pretend childbirth is anything other than hard work and a good reason to never have sex again.

If they won't let you in, you can always volunteer to help a local rancher during the upcoming calving season. Those cows put on quite a show, I can tell you, and most ranchers won't charge you.

Of course, maybe it's all in the marketing. Maybe Filan, should call his scrap pile a "joyous commentary on the inherent opportunities for innovative renewal in a post-industrialization economy."

If Mr. Filan, whom I do not know personally, will slouch around smoking Pall Mall cigarettes, acting tormented by inner brilliance, the National Endowment for the Arts might pony up a grant. It would certainly help with those fines.

Luke Hegdal can be reached at lukehegdal@wwub.com or 526-8326.

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